Ten years ago today, Kanye West released College Dropout. Ten years…that’s seems like a while, but I remember it like it was yesterday. I even though my 10 year old self was not the music nerd that I am today, I still remember the hype surrounding it. And while College Dropout would join Speakerboxxx/The Love Below and The Black Album as the albums that defined my 5th grade year, I never would have guessed how impactful that album would still be 10 years later. I never would have guessed that it would be the hip-hop album that defined my generation.
College Dropout was a record that was five years in the making. Even though the bulk of the recording was done in 2002 and 2003, Kanye had actually started making beats for it years prior in his apartment. And as crazy as it may sound now, he actually had a really hard time getting a record deal. Even though Kanye had earned a reputation as a premier beat maker and eventually became Roc-A-Fella Records’ house producer, many record execs, including the Roc’s own Damon Dash, weren’t excited about Ye’s middle class background and lack of street cred. And even more than that, many questioned his skills as an MC. Luckily, Roc-A-Fella gave their guy a chance, and he delivered in a big way.
The story of College Dropout’s success is one that’s pretty well known. Not only did it do well commercially (it went double platinum), but it was a hit with music critics as well. However, to really grasp the importance if this record, we gotta go back to 1989. Gangsta rap had taken over thanks in large part to N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton.” But then De La Soul released 3 Feet High & Rising, which featured positive lyrics that contrasted the hardcore and confrontational gangsta style. This marked the beginning of what is now know as alternative hip-hop. De La Soul, along with A Tribe Called Quest and the rest of the Native Tongues posse continued this new style into the early 90’s. Despite their success, albums like The Chronic, Ready To Die, and Illamtic never allowed alternative hip-hop to take over the way gangsta rap. Alternative rap soon faded from the mainstream. In 1999, the Roots, Common, and the rest of the Soulquarians started an alternative renaissance by releasing a string a widely acclaimed albums. However, the rise of Eminem prevented them from catching the attention of mainstream hip-hop listeners.
Now let’s fast-forward to 2004. As I mentioned earlier, Outkast and Jay-Z each released landmark albums the year before. But they were both at the tail ends of their respective careers (or so we thought with Jay-Z), and there was a new #1 guy on the block: 50 Cent. Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ established 50 Cent as the top dog in hip-hop and re-solidified gangsta rap as hip-hop’s cash cow. But then came College Dropout. For the first time ever, an alternative hip-hop album not only topped the hip-hop charts, but was a mainstream success as well, hitting #2 on the Billboard 200. Songs about religion and poverty were getting the same amount of radio play as songs like “In da Club.” Not only that, but for the first time an alternative rapper could claim to be a mainstream megastar. And when 50 Cent fell into obscurity, Kanye West cemented himself as the #1 rapper in the world.
There's one more thing that College Dropout did that I appreciate the most. It brought sampling back in style. As I've tried to show you guys every Thursday, sampling is an important part of hip-hop. But in the early 2000’s, it wasn’t really prominent anymore. At the time, the Neptunes (specifically Pharell) and Timbaland were the most in-demand producers, and for good reason. They were hit makers. And because they were hit makers everybody tried to copy their keyboard-based beats. This caused many producers to abandon sampling not only because making beats on a keyboard is cheaper, but also because they wanted to sound like Pharell. The success of College Dropout and its soul-based sound brought sampling back to the forefront of mainstream hip-hop. Producers then started digging through their record collections trying to sound like Kanye. While I don’t have any issue with Timbaland or Pharell, I'm grateful that Yeezy helped restore one of my favorite things about hip-hop.
Despite all of the changes Kanye West has gone through in his career, College Dropout seems to be the album that will define his legacy. Nowadays it’s really easy to hate him. Hell, I even do it from time to time here on Daily Beat. You see Kanye has, in some ways, become the victim of his own success. He set the bar so damn high that we've come to accept nothing short of perfection from him. Now, I'm not saying we shouldn’t because we should expect great musicians to consistently give us great music. It’s what we deserve for being their fans. But, as fans, we have to remember why they are great. In Kanye’s case, College Dropout is that reminder.